You Get the Behavior You Settle For
Ann M. Little, July 2013
Additional responses to the roundtable can be found here.
Anyone who has taught a class, trained a dog, or raised a child knows this simple truth: you get the behavior you settle for. This is an important maxim to remember when beholding the boundless wonders of the non-peer-reviewed world wide timewasting web. Over at el rancho Historiann, my commenters have been trained to scrape their boots and remove their hats, so to speak, when they want to enter my virtual space and comment on a post. And when you look at the unmoderated comment sections at most online news outlets and magazines, you’ll see a very different kind of online behavior, where condescension, insults, and dead horse-beating are the norm. I don’t learn anything from that kind of comment thread, and I’m guessing that you don’t either. Blogs, Tumblr feeds, and other online publications that want to foster productive discussions must aggressively curate their comments sections and ban commenters who are more interested in insulting or baiting the author or other commenters.
What can an academic blogger or a history website do with commenters who are determined to disrupt online conversations? In order to prevent your space from being infested with troublemakers, you should think carefully and critically about the kind of online space you host and the conversations you want to foster there. The first and most obvious step is to read other bloggers’ “rules for commenting,” and develop a set of rules for your own blog or website. This is especially important if your blog will address or focus on the issues that seem to draw out the nastiest online commenters, bar none: race, gender, and sexuality. Always remember that pointing out that power is unequally and unjustly distributed in the meat world is the greatest provocation to online bullies and trolls. Some people apparently live only to reassure us that reverse-racism is a bigger problem than the old-fashioned kind; that feminism, not sex bias, is what’s divisive; and that they’d happily accept gays if only they didn’t make sexuality such a big deal. These are the kinds of people who cannot be educated or reasoned with—they exist only to prevent you from having the kinds of conversations that you want to have with your blog community. (Feminist blogs are some of the best run blogs out there, in part because they must be. In my observation, they are subjected to more hostility, skepticism, and abuse than other blogs, usually because the writers are identified as or presumed to be women.)
Next, you must ban obnoxious commenters publicly, ruthlessly, and with confidence. Refuse to be bullied by the claim that you are engaging in “censorship!” It’s ridiculous: you are not “the government,” and if you own the domain name and pay for the server space, it’s your space. You own it. You no more owe anyone entry to your comments section than you owe random passers-by entry to your home or apartment, let alone passers-by who want to pee on your carpet and crap in the sink. Depend upon it: banning one jerk will bring twelve other useful commenters into the conversation. These decent commenters had productive ideas to share and interesting things to say, but they were intimidated by the abusive bore who jacked your discussion thread.
Ann M. Little is associate professor of history at Colorado State University and blogger at Historiann.